Our Greatest Living Film Critic, XIII

December, 2019

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

Watched The Dead Don’t Die (2019), Jim Jarmusch’s unsuccessful imitation of a zombie movie and very successful commercial for Sturgill Simpson. The cast is too long to mention, but it’s got some winners in it: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Danny Glover. Tom Waits has a cozy little side hustle playing old men who live outside. This is a zombie movie where the metaphor for commercialism isn’t a metaphor, it’s a monologue. The dead walk around looking for the products they craved in life, and only eating people when convenient for the plot. If that wasn’t clear enough, instead of ‘braaains’ they say things like ‘coffeeeee’, ‘wiiiifiiii’, or ‘fashioon’. Must the best criticism be subtle? It gets meta when Murray and Driver literally comment on the script. I don’t think I’ve ever really liked a Jim Jarmusch movie. I give it 3 Smart Cars out of a possible 5 Smart Cars.

Hopscotch (1980)

Watched Hopscotch (1980), a dry comedic spy thriller starring Walther Matthau as an ex-CIA agent on the run from the agency while writing his tell-all memoirs. Compare it to Fletch (1985) in tone, though I think I like this one even better. The weakest part of the movie is when it tries to be too madcap. Hard to overstate how delightful Matthau is in this role, or in any role, really. A few years prior to this, Matthau got to play tough guy heroes: The Laughing Policeman (1973), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), and Charley Varrick (1973), but by 1980 enough had changed that the dark original novel, by the writer of Death Wish, was changed into a consequence-free romp. There were whole scenes added where the only purpose was to show off Matthau’s funny face. A young Sam Waterstone plays Matthau’s admiring protege, grudgingly tasked with bringing him in by weasely boss Ned Beatty. Interesting score by Mozart and Rossini. Notice that everybody’s driving left-hand drive cars in Britain. I give it 4 hectares out of a possible 5 hectares.

The Irishman (2019)

Watched The Irishman (2019), Martin Scorsese’s extended meditation on whether anything we do matters in the end. It turns out it doesn’t, but while making his point Scorsese demonstrates what it takes to get a great performance out of Al Pacino and Robert Deniro in the 21st century: you have to be Martin Scorsese. Young Deniro looks like he’s in The Polar Express (2004). Jimmy Hoffa sure loved ice cream. I guess that was supposed to be Don Rickles. I was waiting to hear "Joey" by Bob Dylan, but never did. Another plot thread I wish they’d followed was how Deniro’s character claimed to paint houses, but we never actually saw him lift a paint brush! I give it 4.25 watermelons out of a possible 5 watermelons.

The educated mind

He is an atheist, but knows how to interpret in orthodox style the most difficult passages of the Koran; for every educated man is a theologian and faith is not a requisite.

— Borges

“He” is Omar Khayyam.

Rule number one

Every big organization is set up for the benefit of those who control it; the boss gets what he wants.

— Robert Jackall, Moral Mazes

Obliteration

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

— Orwell

According to their need

To be a communist [in the mid 20th century] had next to nothing to do with a desire to establish a government resembling the one found in the USSR … In working-class environments, leftist politics meant first and foremost a very pragmatic rejection of the experience of one’s own daily life. It was a form of protest, and not a political project inspired by a global perspective.

— Didier Eribon

I am convinced that voting for the National Front must be interpreted, at least in part, as the final recourse of people of the working classes attempting to defend their collective identity, or to defend, in any case, a dignity that was being trampled on, even now by those who had once been their representatives and defenders.

— Didier Eribon

Thoughts on Paganism

Many useful excerpts to be culled from this essay about historical paganism and witchcraft, as compared to the modern misapprehension of them.

At the centre of the most vaunted ancient paganism, Celtic paganism, lies the terrible secret of the bog body, the uncannily preserved bodies of those deposited in bogs by previous societies for reasons that are still debated. Discoveries in Ireland illustrate that bog people could often be high-status individuals who had done little manual labour. Old Croghan Man, discovered in 2003, has a leather and tinned bronze armlet, and was very tall, almost 6’3”, and young and healthy. Old Croghan Man’s death was garishly violent—hazel rods were threaded through holes in his upper arms; he was stabbed in the chest, struck in the neck, decapitated, and cut in half. The violence, says Eamon Kelly of the National Museum of Ireland, is not done for torture or to inflict pain. It is a triple killing because the goddess to whom the sacrifice is made has three natures. She is goddess of sovereignty, fertility, and death.

And

Alexandra Walsham’s work on the reuse of wells and trees illustrates the way that far from destroying paganism, the church sought to convert pagan objects and rituals to Christianity. Consequently, it is inaccurate to see supernatural beliefs in 1500 as a static combination of Christian ideas with a few anterior pagan notions. Paganism survives through rather than in opposition to medieval Catholicism. It’s not that the Middle Ages display groups of dissident pagans hiding out alongside a dominant Christian world. All the “pagan” texts we have were transcribed by Christians. The green man carvings, the sheela-na-gigs, the romances populated with pagan figures—all are of Christian making.

And

The 21st century has also forgotten about the dead. Rites of mourning now are brief to the point of perfunctory even if grief continues unsupported. If there is a general truth it is that experiences of nature are mapped onto assumptions about the dead. As more and more of us live in vast conurbations, we have forgotten and are able to forget our own ultimate ends. It’s this sense of taboo and apprehension that modern paganism wants to omit. Instead of reuniting us with the dead and helping us to manage our fear of death, modern paganism proves to be another form of denial; this in itself makes its claims to historical revival hollow. Timothy Taylor notes that at some point in history, human beings realise that they will all die. To small bands of roaming hunters this was not self-evident; it was possible to view death as something unlucky that happened to other people. Once it was realised that everybody died, further issues arose, including the question “how can I stop the soul of the deceased returning to the body?”

Spurred onward

Any system which allows men to choose their own future will end by choosing safety and mediocrity, and in such a reality the stars are out of reach.

— Asimov

Metonymy

The ronds-de-cuir. French bureaucrats, laboring all day on wooden chairs, were prone to a shine on the seat of the pants… To Lezhev, the ronds-de-cuir seemed, at first, a doleful but inevitable feature of French life but, in time, he came to understand them in a different way. Fussy, niggling, insatiable, they had some kinship with the infamous winds of Catalonia, which will not blow out a candle but will put a man in his grave.

— Alan Furst, The Polish Officer

Vox scriptor

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

— Thomas Jefferson

The best thing for being sad

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn—pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theo-criticism and geography and history and economics—why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”

“Apart from all these things,” said the Wart, “what do you suggest for me just now?

— T.H. White